In a world cup full of shocks, here’s another one; a united French team!

Spain getting thrashed in their first match and going out in their second? Unlikely. Costa Rica beating Uruguay and Italy and qualifying first from Group D? Implausible. An Australian scoring the goal of the tournament so far? Maybe if he used a cricket bat! France looking organised and interested? No chance! Since they were crowned world and European champions in 2002, Les Bleus record at major tournaments has served only to provide England fans with the line ‘at least we weren’t as bad as…’

In 2002 they became the first defending champions to go out of a world cup without scoring a single goal. In 2006 they were single handedly carried to the final by Zinedine Zidane and that ultimately ended in disgrace. Four years ago in South Africa, the divisions within the squad lead to industrial action being taken by some players against manager Raymond Domenech.

Domenech was in fact symptomatic of the problem’s surrounding French football. A man with a precious ego and a lack of genuine leadership quality at the helm inadvertently spilled his example onto the pitch. He had tried to claim that he had masterminded France’s route to the final in 2006, conveniently ignoring the contribution of Zidane, and he was lucky to hold onto his position after a disastrous Euro 2008 where it is claimed he refused to pick Robert Pires due to his star sign. Perhaps Domenech thought he was the new Arsene Wenger, an innovative professeur in charge of the national team. In the end he was more of a poor man’s Basil Fawlty.

However, from the wreckage of 2010 France have risen steadily. Laurent Blanc, a legend as a player restored some credibility as manager during Euro 2012 and Didier Deschamps has continued the recovery. The French FA have tapped into a wealth of managerial talent among their world cup winning players and Deschamps seems to have tapped into the mood of the French supporters.

He made a bold call on the eve of the tournament to drop Samir Nasri from his final 23. He lost his talisman Franck Ribery to injury before naming a squad but that seems to have worked in his favour and has complemented his decision to drop Nasri. Both Ribery and Nasri are brattish figures and are nowhere near as talented as they think they are (although Ribery comes close). Shorn of both of them, Deschamps has a squad at his disposal that is completely removed from the anarchy of four years ago and it is showing out on the pitch. In the two games they have played so far, France have blossomed as an attacking force and have revelled in each other’s success.

Against Switzerland, Karim Benzema missed a first half penalty but refused to let his head drop. His goal was just reward for a selfless performance where he linked up excellently with Olivier Giroud and Mathieu Valbuena. France’s fifth goal exemplified their spirit. Benzema, in a shooting position instead picked out a superb pass for Moussa Sissoko who was still marauding down the right despite it being late in the game and his team already 4-0 up. The third goal was an example of breathtaking counter attacking football. Deschamps’ tactic of leaving Giroud and Valbuena up when defending a corner paid off perfectly.

The signs that France were a team on the up were evident in their first game against Honduras. They did superbly well to keep their discipline and their patience despite the best efforts of the Hondurans to kick them off the park. In both games the joy amongst the entire squad has been apparent for every goal scored. This is a harmonious unit with a collective ambition to entertain.

How far they can go in this tournament remains to be seen. Their defence looks suspect and the two goals they ceded to the Swiss were well taken yet avoidable. Team spirit is easy to maintain when you’re winning and it will be interesting to see how France fare when they come up against quality opposition that can put them on the back foot. However, Les Bleus are now the joint top scorers in the tournament with eight goals along with the Netherlands and they are playing with smiles on their faces. If they continue in this vein, the fans will be smiling no matter what.

Advertisements

Top 10 promising young talent at the WC

#10 Romelu Lukaku: Belgium

Romelu Lukaku: Belgium
Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku showed an example of what’s to come in this summer’s World Cup after scoring a superb solo goal in the 5-1 win against Luxembourg on May 26 in a game that also saw him bag a hat-trick. On loan at Everton from Chelsea last season, the 21-year-old scored 15 goals and made six assists in the Premier League. He’s now scored 32 goals and made 10 assists in his two full campaigns in the English top flight. Belgium are expected to go far in the World Cup, according to ITV, and with striker Lukaku in great form, they could well reach the final stages of the tournament.

#9 Paul Pogba: France

Paul Pogba: France
Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba is well known but has yet to play in a major international tournament at senior level for France. The 21-year-old joined Juve in 2012 and has gone on to win back-to-back Serie A titles and Supercoppa Italianas, as per Wikipedia. Pogba’s fast rise to glory has been incredible. The talented midfielder won the Golden Ball to go with his FIFA U20 World Cup triumph with France in 2013. He only made his international senior team debut in March that year. Scoring seven goals and making seven assists, while also boasting having made 74 successful dribbles and 48 key passes in Serie A, Pogba is set to play an important part in the France side this summer. Certainly one to watch.

#8 Raheem Sterling: England

Raheem Sterling: England
The Premier League’s 2014 Young Player of the Year nominee Raheem Sterling, who currently plays for Liverpool, is another England hopeful who can really make a difference in this summer’s World Cup. The 19-year-old winger scored nine goals and made five assists for the Reds in the Premier League, and he could be an important impact player for England manager Roy Hodgson.

#7 Joel Campbell: Costa Rica

Joel Campbell: Costa Rica
While Arsenal winger Joel Campbell came to the attentions of many following his superb curled effort for Olympiakos against Manchester United in the Champions League last season, the Costa Rican international has been in incredible form during his loan spell. Campbell, 21, has scored eight goals and made 12 assists for the Greek side. He returns to Arsenal following his temporary spell with Olympiakos but could be the catalyst for the Costa Rica side this summer and could hamper England’s hopes of qualifying from the group stages when the two sides meet in June.

#6 Gerard Deulofeu: Spain

Gerard Deulofeu: Spain
While it can be difficult for newcomers to the Spain squad to force their way into the first team, Barcelona’s Gerard Deulofeu may be one player to whom manager Vicente Del Bosque looks in the World Cup. The 20-year-old spent last season on loan with Everton, scoring threegoals and making three assists. He quickly built up a reputation for his penchant for trickery to beat his opponent, with 44 successful dribbles made, while proving to be a genuine goal threat, too. While he failed to make the initial 30-man provisional squad, Deulofeu was called up for the pre-tournament friendly against Bolivia and could put himself in the driver’s seat for a place on the plane should anyone pull out. He does have Pedro, Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla, Jesus Navas and Andres Iniesta to contend with for a place in the Spain side, but Deulofeu isn’t there to make up the numbers and could be a successful wildcard this summer.

#5 Memphis Depay: Netherlands

Memphis Depay: Netherlands
Promising PSV Eindhoven winger Memphis Depay is a name to remember. The 20-year-old only made his Netherlands debut in October 2013, but he’s now a player who could play an important part in the side in this summer’s World Cup. Depay has scored an impressive 12 goals and made eight assists in 32 league games. He’s made just a handful of appearances for the Netherlands side but has more than proved he’s ready for the next step.

#4 Mateo Kovacic: Croatia

Mateo Kovacic: Croatia
The lesser-known Mateo Kovacic of Inter Milan is perhaps devoid of notoriety but not quality. The 20-year-old Croatian international has featured in all but six of the Nerazzurri’s league games last season. He’s a box-to-box midfielder who drives the ball from deep and into dangerous areas in the final third. Kovacic has made four assists in the league and boasts 71 successful dribbles from midfield. He’s also made 44 tackles and 28 key passes. The Croat played a pivotal part in Inter finishing in a Europa League place, too.

#3 Julian Draxler: Germany

10 Most Exciting Under-21 Players Named in World Cup Squads - Julian Draxler: Germany
Germany boast an impressive midfield in their World Cup squad, but Schalke’s Julian Draxler is certainly one of the most exciting. The 20-year-old has enjoyed a good campaign with the Bundesliga outfit, scoring five goals and making seven assists in the league and Europe. Draxler averages more successful dribbles per game than Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben and Barcelona’s Neymar. Such is the strength of the Germany midfield, Draxler could be limited to substitute appearances, but he’s sure to impress when he does get on the pitch.

#2 Ross Barkley: England

10 Most Exciting Under-21 Players Named in World Cup Squads - Ross Barkley: England
Everton’s exciting midfielder Ross Barkley is a player who could make the difference for England. Such has been the impressive nature of his performances this season, Barkley has been compared to former England attacking midfielder Paul Gascoigne by his own club manager Roberto Martinez, via ESPN. The 20-year-old has enjoyed a superb breakthrough season with the Toffees, scoring six goals and making 80 successful dribbles in 34 Premier League games from midfield. He’s more than merited his call-up for this summer’s World Cup and will look to make an impression. Fearless Barkley has shown himself to be unfazed by the occasion in games and will certainly get minutes on the pitch for England in the World Cup.

#1 Serge Aurier: Ivory Coast

10 Most Exciting Under-21 Players Named in World Cup Squads - Serge Aurier: Ivory Coast
Ivorian defender Serge Aurier is tipped to have a good World Cup with Les Elephants, as reported on ITV. Last season for French side Toulouse, the 21-year-old scored six goals and made six assists from right-back. He’s deadly going forward, evident with his 191 crosses being made in Ligue 1,  and he’s comfortable in possession, with 1577 passes attempted and 1213 completed.

France Team Preview

The Players

Hugo Lloris (captain) goalkeeper, Tottenham

Mathieu Debuchy defender, Newcastle

Patrice Evra defender, Manchester United

Raphaël Varane defender, Real Madrid

Mamadou Sakho defender, Liverpool

Yohan Cabaye midfielder, Paris Saint-Germain

Franck Ribéry midfielder, Bayern Munich (to be replaced by Morgan Schneiderlin)

Mathieu Valbuena midfielder, Marseille

Olivier Giroud forward, Arsenal

10 Karim Benzema forward, Real Madrid

11 Antoine Griezmann forward, Real Sociedad

12 Rio Mavuba midfielder, Lille

13 Eliaquim Mangala defender, Porto

14 Blaise Matuidi midfielder, Paris Saint-Germain

15 Bacary Sagna defender, Arsenal

16 Stéphane Ruffier goalkeeper, Saint-Etienne

17 Lucas Digne defender, Paris Saint-Germain

18 Moussa Sissoko midfielder, Newcastle

19 Paul Pogba midfielder, Juventus

20 Loïc Rémy forward, Queens Park Rangers

21 Laurent Koscielny defender, Arsenal

22 Clément Grenier midfielder, Lyon (to be replaced by Rémy Cabella)

23 Mickael Landreau goalkeeper, Bastia

Star man

Karim+Benzema+France+v+Finland+pxSkrJmRzjBl

Karim Benzema has enjoyed the most productive campaign of his career with the Real Madrid forward’s form now transferred more consistently to the national team, for whom he scored three goals on the way to Brazil. Now a father, he finally looks to have come of age and is on Arsenal’s transfer wishlist..

Most likely to be sent home in disgrace

Réunion-born striker Dimitri Payet was dumped by Le Havre as a 16-year-old because of his lack of discipline and focus, and several years later headbutted his Saint–Étienne team-mate Blaise Matuidi mid-match before going on strike to force a move to Paris Saint-Germain. He failed, and having admitted his “lifestyle and attitude were no good” is thriving at Marseille.

The coach

Not a great deal is expected of Didier Deschamps this time round. The long-term priority is Euro 2016 on home soil, and he has recently had his contract extended until then. Clearly not afraid to rattle a few cages, as the excluded Samir Nasri and Gaël Clichy have found to their cost. “Samir’s performances with the France team were not at the level of his performances with his club,” Deschamps said.

Grudge match

Belgium, if only for geographical reasons. Or the fact the Belgians are blessed with such enviable talent and have actually beaten France more often than they have lost since the fixture was first staged in the Brussels suburb of Uccle, where Tintin creator Hergé is buried and the marvelously-monikered mathematician Jacques Tits was born in 1904.

Holed up

All staff at the JP hotel in Ribeirão Preto have been taking French lessons since news broke that Les Bleus would be staying here. The team have requested that shower gel be placed in all bathrooms as players are “not used to blocks of soap” (and some goalkeepers might struggle to pick them up).

How they qualified
By le peau de leurs dents. Understandably finished second to Spain in their group; less understandably lost 2-0 to Ukraine in the play-off, before storming back to win 3-0 in Paris.

World Cup high
Winning at home in 1998, single-handedly converting a nation that up until that point secretly preferred rugby.

World Cup low
Going out in the first round without a win four years later was one of the all-time great World Cup shocks.

Familiar faces
Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Patrice Evra (Manchester United), Mamadou Sakho (Liverpool), Gaël Clichy (Manchester City), Bacary Sagna (Arsenal), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Olivier Giroud (Arsenal) and most of the Newcastle team.

Title odds: 25/1

The stereotype is …
Perennial underachievers given their enviable depth of talent, but somehow manage to fluke their way through courtesy of luck or Fifa.

The reality is …
A bunch of quite good players, but few great ones. Still suffering a certain identity crisis, and bearing the scars of four years ago. Deschamps has gone with the recent trend for 4-2-3-1, though he tweaked it to 4-3-3 for the second leg of the play-off against Ukraine when seeking to recover a two-goal deficit. Tactics go out of the window if the tantrums set in.

What are they known for?
Saucy actresses 48 per cent
High taxes 22 per cent
Fine dining 19 per cent
Calais hypermarkets 11 per cent

How Google translates the national anthem
But the bloodthirsty despot, but the accomplices of Bouille. All these tigers who pitilessly ripped out their mothers.

Duration
Barely a minute, and not a second wasted.

How to dress like their fans

0628_A78
French fans have perfected the art of dressing as colourfully and extravagantly as they can whilst maintaining an expression of perfect glumness.

Commentator’s go-to stat
The 13 goals that Just Fontaine scored in 1958, still the record for a single tournament.